Universal Monsters Week: Dracula (1931)
“I never drink…wine.”
What is it about vampires that make them such appealing supernatural figures in pop culture? In the late 2000s, the success of Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and True Blood cemented the idea that vampires were and continue to be hot commodities. While vampire crazes eventually die down, there’s usually some revival. The latest one came in 2014 with Dracula Untold. The Luke Evans starring film got pretty bad reviews but eventually grossed over $215 million worldwide. Dracula Untold was imagined as the first entry in a Universal Monsters extended universe, however plans for a sequel was dropped - even though the cinematic universe is still happening. As of now there are no plans to bring Dracula back into the series but it’s a shame because Dracula is indeed a classic character.
Vampires have a long-lasting cultural appeal for several reasons. They're usually depicted as enchanting and desirable, unlike the grotesque Frankenstein’s Monster or the beastly Wolf Man. Vampires are seductive, reclusive, and often somewhat refined. At least that’s the image of Dracula we get from the influential, vastly entertaining 1931 film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, directed by Tod Browning working from an adaptation of the popular stage play based on Bram Stoker’s original novel. This version was an official adaptation of the novel, coming after the illegal German adaptation Nosferatu in 1922. Both film versions have gone on to become regarded as classics of the genre.
The 1931 Dracula does deviate from the novel in an important way. Here the Count is a refined, handsome nobleman, rather than the more monstrous Dracula in the novel and Nosferatu, creating the image of vampire as sexual fantasy. The biting is an easy metaphor for sexual penetration and it played into audiences’ attraction to romantically dangerous villains. Modern vampires like Edward from the Twilight Saga, Bill Compton from True Blood, and Lestat from Interview with a Vampire all take inspiration from this version of Dracula.
In the original novel, Dracula could transform into a variety of different things, including mist and dust. In the film, he only transforms into a bat, again creating an attribute that would stick with the character for decades to come. The film was so popular and remains enduring that the thought of a vampire conjures up the image of Lugosi’s Dracula. The character became bigger than the film itself, and like many actors who play iconic characters, Lugosi’s career was both boosted and defeated by Dracula. He became synonymous with the role, and struggled to break away. Lugosi’s contribution to the horror genre is invaluable; his performance in this film is otherworldly. The pauses in his line delivery, often parodied since, are still highly effective, and the way he carries his body, his piercing glare, and his deafening silences are eerie and chilling. I admit I was surprised by how measured his performance is. Brought up on satirical takes on the character, I prepared myself for a campy thrill ride, but Dracula holds up in a way I was not expecting.
When Dracula released in 1931, sound films were still new and unchartered. The filmmakers were worried that audiences wouldn’t appreciate a score without some diegetic basis in reality, so there isn’t much of one. (Editor's Note: Check out the Philip Glass score included on the home video releases.) The film also uses elements of silent film like interstitials and newspaper articles to further the plot, and while these elements were implemented out of fear of the new technology, in a modern setting they work to create a minimalist bone-chiller. Dracula was also one of the first Hollywood films that was a purely supernatural thriller, without any sort of comic relief, this is just a straight horror film. Also, in my research I learned of the publicity for the picture that included “accounts” of people fainting and screaming in the theater, a marketing trick that is still done today.
Dracula was one of the first films in the Universal Monsters series in the 1930s and the first sound film, it really catapulted the franchise to popularity. The next film Frankenstein (also 1931) was received with even greater acclaim. Dracula was a hit at the box office, and created movie stars out of both Bela Lugosi and Dracula himself. I can only hope that Dracula makes an appearance in the upcoming Dark Universe, and hopefully in a film worthy of the legendary character.